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The time when the pope (sort of) visited Tick Bite, North Carolina.
A tiny community along a dead-end road got a divine flyover a few years ago. The view on the ground is much different, and two decades after he came, one visitor still can't bring himself to leave.
The place: Tick Bite, North Carolina.
Why is it nam— Stop right there. Nobody knows why it’s named that. Wes Wolfe, then of the Kinston Free Press, tried to figure it out a few years back, and asked some of the locals. Nobody had an answer. But I agree with Wolfe’s working hypothesis: It is very much a place where you would encounter a tick that would bite you.
Where is it? Near Grifton, between Greenville and Kinston on Highway 11.
How do you get there? You … don’t? Either you are extremely lost or happen to know one of the hundred or so people who live at the end of Tick Bite Road, which dead ends in a swamp between Contentnea Creek and the Neuse River.
So who would actually visit? You’re not gonna believe this, but Tick Bite has been visited by the Vicar of Christ. That’s right, il Papa himself, POPE FRANCIS.
Okay, he didn’t drop in to say hello. No, he circled the place in his Pope Plane on the way to Washington, D.C. The Pontifex couldn’t land there even if he wanted to — the business end of Tick Bite Road is less than a mile long and 20 feet wide, not quite ready to bring in an Airbus 330.
Who else has visited? Me. I have been there.
Why? Some of the good people of nearby Grifton were showing me around after Hurricane Florence, and the resulting trip became an episode of Away Message. The biggest thing to know about the greater Tick Bite area, other than the Grifton Shad Festival, is that it has been remade by hurricanes. First, there was Fran in 1996. Then Floyd hit in 1999, which may have caused the worst flood there in a millennium. Contentnea Creek shot out of its banks and wiped out dozens of homes, which were then bought out by FEMA. Those storms had an unexpected effect: They integrated Grifton. The town, like a bunch of others, had been physically divided by race. But when older white people on higher ground moved out of their homes, the Black folks who had been displaced by Floyd and Fran moved in.
But the result is those storms is that, on a few streets in town, there are no houses where you would think there would be houses. Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018) did relatively little damage because the buildings that would have taken the worst of it were already gone.
But Tick Bite? It’s on the lower side of Contentnea Creek. So when things are bad in Grifton, they’re worse over there.
How bad did it get? Two years after Floyd, in 2001, the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill interviewed a family that had lived in Tick Bite for most of their lives. One of them, Clyda Coward, then 68, was forced out of her home. She was the granddaughter of a slave. She lived in Tick Bite when it was a community of several hundred people. Back when it was middle class. A mix of Black and white. Clyda’s brothers worked at DuPont a few miles away, which provided some of the first jobs a Black man in the area could land that wasn’t on a farm. Clyda’s husband worked as a laborer way out at Camp LeJeune. He didn’t have a car. He walked to Grifton every day to catch a bus. He did that for 34 years.
Things weren’t easy, but they were stable.
Then Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999.
LEDA HARTMAN (interviewer): How is it different?
CLYDA COWARD: I don't know. That's something I've been trying to figure out ever since I've come back here. One thing, there's areas where the earth moved. That sounds ridiculous doesn't it? But it's true.
LEDA HARTMAN: Can you explain more?
CLYDA COWARD: I think that the force of the water shifted the earth.
DEBRA COWARD (daughter): That doesn't explain why we feel different.
CLYDA COWARD: I don't know. I feel like I have been invaded.
The flood was the worst in 500 years. The only gathering place in Tick Bite, the church, was gone. An old lamp that belonged to Clyda’s grandmother made it through. But nothing else did. The Cowards moved to an apartment in the next town over, Ayden. A lot of people left the area and never came back.
How? It wasn’t easy. The Cowards didn’t have much money. The community, which is on the edge of two counties, was overlooked. But soon after the floodwaters receded, Baptist missionaries came into town. They helped rebuild Clyda’s house. “The Baptist Men. That's been our lifesavers,” Clyda said in 2001. “They have saved a lot of people, and they saved us.”
One of those men came and never left.
The guys who were showing me around the area after Hurricane Florence took me over to an old factory that’s now the home of Grifton Mission Ministries. Billy Tarlton, the man who runs it, was a general contractor in Charlotte. But after showing up in 1999, he shut down his business and stayed.
Two decades later, Billy is still helping out, rain or shine. He collects basic items — water, toilet paper, diapers, and serves free meals. He doesn’t ask questions. He knows that some people who don’t need help show up anyway. He doesn’t stop them. Pulling out the bad roots uproots the good, he told me. “You don't turn anybody away. They may have a bad attitude, but you do the best you can to keep a good servant's heart.”
Florence didn’t do as much damage here as other storms. But the power got knocked out for days. Their food spoiled. The water was bad. People needed something to eat and drink. They needed a place to go. So, I watched Billy and his volunteers giving as much as they possibly could, in a place that a lot of people have never heard of, doing work that most of us never see. Forget the pope. That’s the real divine intervention.
h/t Claude Kennedy, Tommy Sugg
I, Jeremy Markovich, am a journalist, writer, and producer based outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. If you liked this, you might like Away Message, my podcast about North Carolina’s hard-to-find people, places, and things. Season 4 was all about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Author avatar by Rich Barrett.
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